Mar 172010
 

UPDATED: Another departure on the next page.
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Alex Chilton, the enigmatic cult figure who first came to stardom as the teenage singer for The Box Tops and later drifted into initially unwanted obscurity with the eventually appreciated Big Star died on Wednesday at 59 years old in a New Orleans hospital. It is believed the cause of death was a heart attack. Here’s a good obit from his hometown paper.

UPDATED: If you haven’t seen it already, check out this House of Representatives floor speech tribute by Steve Cohen (D, Tennessee).

I never saw Chilton on his occasional Big Star tours with drummer Jody Stephens and the guys from The Posies, but I got to see Chilton at J.C. Dobbs, a narrow, little club in Philadelphia in the mid-80s. This was at the height of Big Star cult worship, but Chilton was touring in support of a humble EP of Memphis soul and some odd-ball covers that had more in common with his Box Tops roots than his Big Star stuff. As usual, I was reluctant to see him play songs like “Volare” when I’d been worshipping at the alter of the first and third Big Star albums (and the handful of songs I liked on the second one, an album I still find distracting at too many points). He had some single out at the time called “No Sex.” I thought it was stupid, as I usually find topical ditties to be. Plus I’d heard from friends who had seen him and even hung out with him that he was moody and a little creepy. Word was he couldn’t be counted on as a performer.

Thankfully I snapped out of it, realizing that I should take advantage of the fact that I was in my early 20s and the doorman used to let me into almost any show without charge. What did I have to lose, except the assumed validity of me preconceptions?

If memory serves he fronted a trio: him on guitar, some pretty slick, stick-thin (possibly fretless) bassist, and a drummer. The Memphis-style novelty numbers (imagine Rufus Thomas singing his stuff in Chilton’s whiny, twangy voice) worked live. Chilton was a really good guitarist, ripping off tasty licks on a Telecaster. People were shouting out for Big Star numbers now and then, but true to reports he gave off a slightly threatening aura, an aura that threatened to walk off stage if people couldn’t get into the here and now. I forget, he may have played a Big Star song or two during his set, and he may have played a Box Tops song. Maybe. What I do remember clearly is that for his encore he announced that he would now deliver on all expectations. He played a half dozen Big Star classics, from “When My Baby’s Beside Me” to “Kangaroo.” He played “The Letter.” He ended with a really sweet version of the Bacharach/David song “The Look of Love.” It was a marvelous ending to what started as a surprisingly fun set.

As a performer/person, Chilton was inscrutable throughout the show. The guy obviously oozed musicality, but it was hard to get a sense of what he was after. He was the opposite, say, of Joe Strummer. No wonder his career was all over the place. I know people like this in real life and wish they could get some focus, commit to something. Regardless, Chilton left a trail of good music through the years.

By special request of Townsman Hrrundivbakshi, in the comments on this thread, on behalf of Alex Chilton, please see this piece on Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Sadly the Soul Train interview seems to have been wiped clean from YouTube.

UPDATED: Charlie Gillett also dead.

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  23 Responses to “Alex Chilton Dead”

  1. BigSteve

    This is sad news. And it’s strange for me because I finally bought that Big Star boxset Friday (thank you emusic), and I’ve spent a lot of time listening since then. It’s still great stuff.

    That trio Chilton had in the 80s was a fine little band. I saw them several times at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. Bassist Rene Coman (yes he did play fretless) and drummer Doug Garrison are the rhythm section for the Iguanas now.

  2. I don’t think I saw that Dobb’s show, but I have seen him pretty consistently at his Philadelphia shows starting with a Dobb’s show around the same time, probably a little after when High Priest came out. He was always totally perverse, for example at a Chestnut Cabaret show when he had a head cold and blew snot on his shirt sleeve all night. One of the last times I saw him was at the Khyber maybe six or seven years ago. He got one of those requests that might generally drive him off the deep end, but this time it came with an offer of $20. He graciously…no greedily agreed to play The Letter. Richard Dworkin, a NY Downtown jazz drummer didn’t even know the song, so Chilton proceeded to sing a couple of bars of the drum part to get him started and kicked into a typical casual version. Of course after this solicitous moment, there were several more offers for paid requests but he quickly begged off saying it wouldn’t be right to keep taking money for faking songs all night. An uncharacteristically honorable moment. Oh and at that show he took great pride in the European title of his latest release, here known as “Set”. His preferred title which didn’t past muster in his increasingly politically correct homeland was “Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy”. I’m really sad to hear he’s gone.

  3. BigSteve

    Speaking of which, I just came across this nice article about power pop and the Big Star box by Michael Chabon that ran in the most recent edition of McSweeney’s:

    http://www.michaelchabon.com/Michael_Chabon/Bonus_Track_3.html

  4. diskojoe

    This is surprising & sad news about Alex Chilton. He was a true Memphis eccentric who marched to his own drummer, but had an interesting career from the Box Tops through Big Star & his solo stuff.

  5. I was late to the party. I didn’t know Big Star until after the Replacements song “Alex Chilton” in 1987.

    I got to see the Posies infused Big Star at Smiths Olde Bar,a 200 person capacity club in Atlanta in 1995. It was part of a radio convention and not open to the public(Big Star was the headliner, but there were 5-6 unknown bands from the Ardent label opening). I was an intern at RCA, parent of Zoo Records, who had put out the 1993 live record,and one of the guys I worked for got me in.

    They were fantastic, did the songs that are on that “Columbia” live CD from 1993 (incl. S.L.U.T and I Am The Cosmos) in a tight one-hour set. They were much tighter than they were on the live CD.

    As the last notes of the last song rang out, Alex packed up his guitar and ran down the stairs to a waiting cab. No “thanks” or anything.

    After the show we went to a local bar with Jon and Ken from the Posies (who had a rental car, a hotel room and no idea where to go in Atlanta, so I was their tour director)They said that Alex was like this everywhere, he really did not want to talk to anyone in the “biz” and that this show was a favor to Jody Stephens who was trying to get the Ardent label going.

    They came back in the 2006 or 2007 and were the opening band on a 5 band bill (I think Collective Soul or Live was the headliner) and played a 20 minute set at 4 in the afternoon to a crowd who had no idea who they were

  6. I saw the new Big Star three times. I had tickets for the upcoming show in Memphis. Words can’t describe what his loss means to me. I listened to Third last night and it still touches.

    Alex was a confusing fellow, but I’m glad he got to feel some Big Star love and get some deserved recognition before he left us. Hopefully, he’s rocking out with Chris and Jim now.

    TB

  7. BigSteve

    Thanks for the clip of Alex singing El Goodo, bobby. It’s good to see that he was singing it in a committed way, and he even gave a little triumphant wave at the end. I never saw the reconstituted Big Star, and that live album was not that great. I guess I was always worried that he would be distancing himself from the material as he played it.

    He was an ornery guy. Remember that he lived through the hurricane Katrina chaos because he refused to heed his friends’ pleas to evacuate. At least before he died he had ample evidence that people loved his music, even if they didn’t always love the same stuff as much as he did.

  8. I’m bummed out, about as bummed out as I was when George Harrison died. Listening to all the Big Star on my iPod right now.

    I saw Chilton solo four times, each time in the latter-day trio format with Richard Dworkin (drums) and a bass player named Ron, I think. He’d usually play one or two Big Star songs (“In the Street” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me”) and lots of covers. I was at the show Geo describes, when he played “The Letter” for $20. (I know who paid him, for what it’s worth.) I know some people thought these solo shows were no better than a wedding band, but I think that’s mainly because of “Volare.” Otherwise, his tastes were a little more obscure.

    Don’t have much more to add, but Big Star’s music is just a huge thing in my collection, in the way I think about and appreciate rock. And that’s almost entirely because of Chilton.

    And yeah he was the very definition of a mercurial cult artist, (and a man of mystery) but I think that was part of his greatness. He did what he wanted to do. You can’t have him.

  9. dbuskirk

    I’d like to throw out props for Alex the producer. His work on the first Cramps e.p. is seminal. He worked similar miracles with another favorite of mine Tav Falso and Panther Burns (his best LP, THE WORLD WE KNEW), Carmaig deForest (I SHALL BE RELEASED), and the Gories (I KNOW YOU FINE BUT HOW YOU DOIN’?).

  10. . His work on the first Cramps e.p. is seminal.

    Gravest Hits! I listened to it this morning during breakfast. I love the sound of that — now there’s some psychobilly that transcends its influences and manages to sound genuinely weird and unhinged. I still haven’t gotten around to buying the first Cramps full-length he produced, Songs the Lord Taught Us.

  11. misterioso

    Alas. Very sad. Hard to know what to say: those three Big Star records have meant so much to me for the 20+ years since I “discovered” them. It seems they meant a lot more to me (and you all) than to him. He was a puzzle, to be sure. Oats is right: You Can’t Have Him. Not for free, anyway.

  12. hrrundivbakshi

    Just a few words from li’l ol’ me:

    Alex Chilton changed my life. I don’t mean that in a huge, heavy kind of way. He was just part of the important eye-opening I experienced in college, when — thanks to bands like the Jam, the Pretenders, and (especially) Big Star — I realized pop music could be cool. And interesting! There are many things to appreciate in Big Star songs, but almost all of them have huge Kentonite appeal; they were pretty dense things, musically speaking. So: music that moved, that moved you, and that had interesting movement. I was moved!

    Separately, a reflection that I suspect is the only thing I could say that Alex might appreciate: dude had seriously *righteous* taste. His weird solo albums from the 80s and onward turned me on to a wealth of great, obscure artists, including a guy I can’t imagine living without now — Johnny Guitar Watson. (Mod, is there a way we can link back to the greatest thing I ever wrote in these hallowed halls, my appreciation of JGW? I’m sure Alex would thank you.) I’m one of those unusual people who reckons those records — especially the sincere, basically buck-naked “Set” CD — are some of the best music Alex ever recorded. He clearly insisted on playing only music he loved, music that sounded good to his ears — music that made him feel good. That really comes across in those covers albums, and I for one always appreciated it.

    Anyhow, thanks, Alex Chilton. I know a guy who never had a kind word to say about you because you seduced and banged his girlfriend — and the one time I saw you live, you struck me as a huge asshole — but I guess that came with the Chilton territory. You gotta take the good with the bad. I still love you, Alex. RIP.

  13. BigSteve

    Just a side note to Geo’s comment about Alex’s preferred title to his album otherwise known as Set. For those of you too young to remember, it’s based on a dirty joke that cost Earl Butz, Nixon and Ford’s Secretary of Agriculture, his job in the Cabinet.

    When asked why the party of Lincoln couldn’t attract more black members, Butz is supposed to have said “All n——s want is loose shoes, tight pussy, and a warm place to take a shit.” This was in a conversation that he thought was private, but it was overheard by John Dean, who made it public.

    The hilarious thing at the time was that the media couldn’t really report what the appropriately named Butz had said, even though this created a storm of coverage, and he had to resign. So trying to use that phrase as an album title is an example of Chilton’s weird sense of humor.

  14. Mr. Moderator

    The link to your Johnny “Guitar” Watson piece has been added, HVB. I forgot that was part of our California Day celebration. That was a special celebration, which for newcomers can be found by clicking the “los angeles” tag and checking out all pieces with the hippie woman in the top left corner.

  15. I actually have an import vinyl copy of Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy, which I got for $16 at the late, lamented Spaceboy Records on South St. I had no idea of the source of the album title. Thanks for that, BigSteve!

  16. There’s a lot to be said about Chilton, one of my personal favorite musicians, but for now I’ll just note that he was the second story on NPR this morning, after news about new jobs bills. That might have been bigger press than he’d gotten in a long time.

    The way he was discussed was also, uh, interesting. After saying he was only 59, and that was pretty young, the report followed up by noting that he’d had a number one hit with “The Letter,” and “then had formed Big Star, a band whose albums did not sell well, but who were later cited as influences by many bands, including The Bangles, The Posies, and The Replacements, who wrote a song about the band.”

    Fascinating to hear that the two most relevant things about Big Star was that the records didn’t sell, and that the group influenced some much less significant bands (though I’m a pretty big Replacements fan). I suppose that’s a function of “objectivity” in reporting (money can be measured, quality cannot), but still.

  17. hrrundivbakshi

    In DeeCee, that little NPR snippet got cut off by the traffic update, which I thought was par for the Chilton career course.

  18. bostonhistorian

    I saw Alex Chilton play three times, never in the faux Big Star incarnation. The last show I saw was in D.C., where the audience kept on yelling for Box Tops songs, Big Star songs, even “Freebird.” He did his best to accommodate some of the requests while following his own set list muse and after the last song of the night, he looked up with a bemused look on his face, and asked “Anyone else need anything done for them?”

    A friend of mine was in a band in the 80s which spent part of a tour as the opener for Chilton, and said that the dates were always strange, because Chilton was so indifferent while playing, but once or twice a night would break off a solo that would stun you. And that really sums up his career for me: by the time people started to catch onto him in the mid-80s Big Star had been dead for ten years, but people wanted Big Star, even though Chilton’s musical priorities were clearly elsewhere.

  19. I’ve shared this story before, but I’ll tell it again for the newbies…

    Mt experience with Chilton was pleasant enough. After seeing the new Big Star for the first time in Oxford, MS, a group of us approached Chilton for a few words and an autograph. He was distant, but cool. He seemed very willing to indulge us. We shared a brief discussion on his recording of The Beach Boys’ “I Wanna Pick You Up” (It’s on a compilation called Caroline Now). There’s also stories about how Carl Wilson taught him to play guitar while The Box Tops were touring with The Beach Boys. There was definitely a relationship between the two in the late 60s/early70s. Maybe we caught him a good day in a good mood?

    Jody was more approachable and we spoke for quite a little while, but that also seems likely.

    TB

  20. misterioso

    mwall, thanks for the summary of the NPR report. I will add this to my file on the Stupidity of Influence–i.e., the need to attach importance to an artist based on tracing their influence. Big Star–man, they must have been awesome! They influenced the Bangles!

    And is “influenced” exactly the term for the impact of Big Star on the Posies?

    Stupid.

  21. Mr. Moderator

    Just saw this very nice rememberance from Ben Vaughn:

    http://benvaughn.com/alexchilton.html

  22. […] deal with their past works? I keep thinking about the 1985 Alex Chilton show I attended and the surprisingly generous way he dealt with this issue. What approaches have worked for you, what approaches haven’t? Many of you are musicians of […]

 
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